Texas Open was rarin' to justify its new spot leading off the Texas swing

Texas Open was rarin’ to justify its new spot leading off the Texas swing

Johnson's 60 was the 21st in Tour history and a record fifth at the Texas Open.
Mike Ehrmann/SI

For the sake of argument, let’s say you had to eliminate one of the four Texas tournaments on the PGA Tour schedule. Which one would it be? The Shell Houston Open has had the same title sponsor for 18 years. The HP Byron Nelson Championship in Irving memorializes one of golf’s most beloved figures. The Crowne Plaza Invitational is played at Fort Worth’s venerable Colonial Country Club, a.k.a. Hogan’s Alley.

Your answer, then, would be d) the Valero Texas Open.

But you would be, if you’ll pardon me for saying it, a King Ranch-sized idiot. The Texas Open — the 79th edition of which was played last week in San Antonio — is the indispensable Texas tournament. If it were a critter, it would be an armadillo. If it were windblown vegetation, it would be a tumbleweed. If it were a prescient sculptural metaphor for the devolution of American automobile manufacturing, it would be a Cadillac Ranch.

Hold on, you say. What’s so special about a tournament that A-list pros visit about as often as they have their tonsils out? And what’s Texas-centric about the Resort course at LaCantera Golf Club, which is as slopey and tree-bound as a Colorado ski village?

Good points, both of them. This year’s Texas Open was predictably Tigerless, Padraig-free and Philphobic; only three of the world’s top 30 golfers showed up. The field was so weak that Jesper Parnevik’s 53-year-old caddie stepped in as a last-minute replacement for an injured player and scored better than a third of the field, including his boss. As for the golf course — well, that same caddie, playing with borrowed clubs, shot 71-70 while missing only a few holes on Parnevik’s bag. “LaCantera is a great course,” said a tactful Ted Purdy, who was tied for second after two rounds, “but it’s not a championship course.”

But that was last week. Let’s pull back a bit and consider the last century. The Texas Open, first staged in 1922, is the third-oldest PGA Tour event and the oldest to be held in the same city for its entire existence. The first winter Tour event, it was also for a time the richest tournament in golf, paying its winner $1,500 when the U.S. Open champ got only $500. Weak fields? Walter Hagen won in ’23, and the Texas Open trophy has since adorned the mantels of Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Jackie Burke, Arnold Palmer (three in a row!), Ben Crenshaw, Lee Trevino and Nick Price.

And if you wanted to embalm a course and send it off to the Smithsonian, you couldn’t do much better than San Antonio’s Brackenridge Park Golf Course, where 21 of the first 31 Texas Opens were played. Designed by the legendary A.W. Tillinghast, Brackenridge played to only 6,185 yards and was so scruffy that the pros sometimes had to tee off from rubber mats. At the 1955 Texas Open, Mike Souchak humbled Brackenridge with an opening 60 and followed with rounds of 68-64-65 for 257, a Tour record that held up until 2001.

So if you’re over the age of 60, you treat the Texas Open with respect. But there’s no denying that the event has lost its swagger in recent years. Wedged into the autumn schedule — which in football-mad Texas is the Lone Star equivalent of euthanasia — the tournament had the dubious distinction of raising more money for charity than most Tour events while attracting far fewer eyeballs. “The dynamics of the PGA Tour [are] that you have these cycles tied to the TV schedule,” says Tony Piazzi, president and CEO of Golf San Antonio, which runs the tournament. “We were an ‘opposite event.’ We had to go up against the Ryder Cup or the Presidents Cup.” The Texas Open was further devalued by its inclusion in the Fall Series, a post-FedEx Cup grind-a-thon for players trying to hold on to their Tour cards.

Sympathetic to the Texas Open’s plight — and grateful for a sponsorship extension that runs through 2012 by Valero Energy Corporation — the Tour promised that the Texas Open would have the first option on a spring date if one came open. That happened last year, after AT&;T hung up on its Atlanta Tour stop. “So we’re the new kid on the block,” a happy Piazzi says, referring to his spring neighbors, “the new kid who just happens to have been around since 1922.”

Make no mistake, spring is better. The Texas Open is now a FedEx Cup event. The tournament escapes the media arroyo as well, attracting weekend coverage by CBS. Best of all, the Tour has made San Antonio the start of its Texas Swing, a three-week cattle drive that goes through Irving and ends in Fort Worth. To mark the occasion, Golf San Antonio hired Lone Star headliners Jerry Jeff Walker, Robert Earl Keen and Clay Walker to perform at shirtsleeve galas (although the Jerry Jeff Walker concert was washed out by a Saturday storm). Next year, when the tournament moves to a Greg Norman-designed course at TPC San Antonio, the organizers promise that the air will be redolent with Texas barbecue and Tex-Mex specialties from local restaurants.

Piazzi, it must be said, is reserving judgment on the Texas Swing concept. “The Florida events are sequenced,” he points out, “but I can’t say there’s been a lot of cross-marketing there.” Neither has he rushed to Dallas-Fort Worth to dance around the Maypole with his rival tournament directors. “We’re competitors for players, sponsors and media attention, but” — and here he smiles — “we’re also part of a bigger picture, the PGA Tour. The stronger each of us is, the stronger we all are.”

Translation: Texas is big enough for four tournaments. So that leaves just one niggling problem — the new date. It still sucks.

The Texas Open now follows the Players, which is the PGA Tour’s show pony and the month’s destination tournament. Most of the European stars fly home after the Players, and the top-ranked American pros want a week or two off after four days of fifth-major pressure. “Unfortunately, the date is between six events that guys don’t want to miss,” said Tour veteran Paul Stankowski. “But that’s enabled me to play, so it’s good — for me.”

The week was also good for former Masters champ Zach Johnson, who — having won the Texas Open last October — saw no reason why he shouldn’t win it again in May. Johnson shot the fifth 60 in tournament history on Saturday and then dispatched Sunday’s hottest golfer, James Driscoll, in a one-hole playoff. It was Johnson’s second victory of ’09 and the sixth of his career.

But it was even better for Lance Ten Broeck, the aforementioned caddie. Ten Broeck, a University of Texas alum, played the PGA Tour from 1980 to ’94, peaking as a runner-up at the 1991 Chattanooga Classic. He later became a pro looper, but having survived 162 Tour cuts, he retains sub-basement-level exempt status. So on Thursday afternoon, having already carried Parnevik’s bag for 18 holes in 90° heat, Ten Broeck slipped into slacks from a nearby mall, put on a borrowed pair of shoes and stepped onto the 1st tee as a replacement for the injured David Berganio.

“It’s something I always wanted to do,” Ten Broeck said the next day, catching his breath after shooting a two-round total of 141, two swipes below the cut line. “I don’t think anybody has ever caddied and played in the same PGA Tour event.” The happy looper then changed back into his shorts and hurried off to catch Parnevik, who, with Ten Broeck’s son Jonathan on his bag, was five holes into his afternoon round.

So really, how could you not love the Texas Open? It’s Wild Bill Mehlhorn winning twice in the ’20s. It’s Jug McSpaden shooting a practice-round 59 at Brackenridge. It’s Nelson beating Hogan in sudden death for the 1940 title, and then Chick Harbert trimming Hogan in ’42. And as Piazzi pointed out last week, “We are the Texas Open. We’re the only tournament with Texas in the name.”

Hear that, Houston?